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Capital Punishment: Objections from Principle and Practice1


THE ISSUE OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT HAS PERHAPS BEEN MORE widely and publicly debated in this country than in any other. It has been a live political issue for well over a century, and the range of views represented by participants is as broad today as at any time in the past. Given the vast amount of literature – philosophical, legal, political and statistical – devoted to the subject, it is difficult to contribute to the debate in some more substantial way then merely by rehearsing well-known opposed positions. What I shall attempt to do in this paper is briefly to set out the positions of principle which might be taken up in arguments about the reintroduction of the death penalty, in the hope of clarifying the exact points of disagreement. Having done this, I shall argue for a particular moral position, before going on to consider some of the more specialized legal issues and the implications for constitutional theory which any form of reintroduction would raise. In the light of all these arguments, I shall finally draw some conclusions for both the debate of principle and the problem of practical politics with which the members of both Houses of Parliament are likely to be faced in the near future.

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2 I shall use the terms ‘abolitionist’ and ‘retentionist’ in the way in which they were used in the pre‐abolition debate.

3 Kant Immanuel, The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, 1797.

4 Report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, Cmnd 8932, HMSO 1953.

5 Hyam v D. P. P (1974) 2 AII E. R. 41.

6 This article was written before capital punishment was debated, and decisively rejected, by the House of Commons on 13 July 1983.

1 Rather than provide extensive footnotes, I should like to acknowledge a general debt to Jonathan Glover’s Causing Death and Saving Lives, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977; Professor H. L. A. Hart’s Punishment and Responsibility, Oxford University Press, 1968; and Ted Honderich’s Punishment, the Supposed Justifications, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1976.

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Government and Opposition
  • ISSN: 0017-257X
  • EISSN: 1477-7053
  • URL: /core/journals/government-and-opposition
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